Once again, the dream comes to him when the moon is full. As always, he sees skeletons lying on the earth in a perfect line. Each of them is framed in red, but he doesn’t know where that colour comes from. It’s not natural for this night-sky to be red. He hasn’t lived in the land for very long, and there’s much he doesn’t know or understand yet, but the colours of the day and night have always been clear to him.
Sometimes, if he is brave enough to continue the dream, a woman appears. He doesn’t know who she is, but she walks through the trees near the skeletons, her dark skirts brushing against gleaming bone. When she reaches the last of the line, she turns and gazes at him. Then she vanishes.
Each time this occurs, he starts to run towards where she has been standing. He has an overwhelming need to call her back, to beg her to tell him what she came to say. Because there is inevitably a message within a dream, isn’t there? He has always been able to interpret it before, but here in his strange new country he cannot. It is that, more than anything, which galls him.
Now when he wakes from the dream, his body is curled around itself and the bed clothes have been thrown onto the floor, presumably from his trying to run. This morning, his limbs feel stiffer than usual, and he takes several minutes to ease out his muscles so he is steady enough to stand.
The faint light from the small window to the left of the bed tells him it’s not yet morning. Too early to rise and wash himself, but he knows he won’t get back to sleep again. Not now. Besides, there is something else he must do: an action to take which has not occurred to him before.
So he takes the cloak from the back of the meditation-chair where he left it last night, swings it over his shoulders and pushes open the door. He does this as quietly as possible, so as not to wake his neighbour. After all, Jeth has been good to him. Even so, in spite of all his efforts, the hearth-dog lying across Jeth’s threshold stirs and growls a little. Heart beating fast, he waits until the animal is silent again. The chill air makes him shiver and he is glad of the cloak.
Finally, the dog returns to its sleep, and he pulls the door behind him shut. He steps off the raised wooden platform down to the heathland, crushing the thickest of the rain-weeds beneath his feet. The people here do not farm the land closest to their dwellings; they believe it to be bad luck, something to rile the earth-gods. He does not believe that to be so, but neither does he question their traditions. He has not earned the right to do so.
He waits for his eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness. Gradually the distant woods, with their marsh-cedars and apple-pines, come into view, though at the moment they are nothing but grey against grey. At the same time, he realises that he is not alone.
When he turns, he already knows who the person waiting next to him amongst the rain-weed will be. Her hair is as black as a winter night with no promise of dawn and her skirts rustle a little in the breeze. Behind her, where the trees begin, a line of white bones marks out a path he has yet to tread.
“No,” he whispers before he even knows he is intending to speak. “I am not ready.”
The words are barely out of his mouth before he realises that there is no argument he can make which will change anything. He swallows. This is the legend of the people; this is their reaper of the dead. He recognises her now.
Just as the hearth-dog stirs again, the woman smiles and shakes her head. She reaches out and her fingers are cold against his skin. He cannot gainsay them. The dog wakes fully and begins to howl.
“Come then,” she whispers. “It is time for you to pay the price. It is time to join the bones of the dead.”
Anne Brooke‘s fiction has been shortlisted for the Harry Bowling Novel Award, the Royal Literary Fund Awards and the Asham Award for Women Writers. She has also twice been the winner of the DSJT Charitable Trust Open Poetry Competition. Her latest poetry collection is A Stranger’s Table, and her latest novel is Maloney’s Law. Both are available from Amazon. Her work is represented by agent, John Jarrold, and she has a secret passion for birdwatching. More information can be found at www.annebrooke.com and she keeps a terrifyingly honest journal at http://annebrooke.blogspot.com.